volume 39, number 3
Temple UniversityFaculty Herald
An Open Letter to President Hart
Vallorie J. Peridier, Associate Professor Mechanical Engineering, Graduate Program Director, Mechanical Engineering/Bioengineering

November 24, 2008

To: Anne Weaver Hart, Ph.D.
President, Temple University

Subject: TAUP contract negotiations: the question of "merit"-based salary increases

President Hart:

I would like to address the difficulties of imposing either a peer-review and/or a performance-based salary-increase scheme in an academic context. Having worked in industry for seven years (AT&T, Pennsylvania Power & Light), I participated in several merit-based salary determinations and believe this scheme can be both fair and motivational -- in the private sector. Academia is a quite different enterprise, and in the rest of this letter I will contrast academia with industry and explain why "comparative merit" is fairly straightforward to determine in industry, but so very difficult to quantify in academia.

The work of an industry white-collar professional is highly collaborative and very visible within the organization. At any one time private-sector professionals are likely to have responsibilities in several projects, each project comprised of a different set of active individuals from diverse divisions and groups within the company. John Kenneth Galbraith aptly described corporate industry as "interlocking committees", with even low-level professionals spending roughly half their time in meetings, and senior managers even more. Industrial organizations are well-mixed fluids, with individuals routinely transferred from one group to another as the need arises. It is not uncommon to switch bosses every six months, and it is rare to work more than two years for the same immediate supervisor.

At PP&L (likely representative of industry practice) the annual salary increases were determined in a coordinated peer-reviewed fashion as follows. Each immediate supervisor specifies how he would distribute his (to be determined) salary-increase chunk among his subordinates and must defend his proposed distribution his to both his peer supervisors and his own line manager. An important corrective element of this scheme is the interlocking-project working arrangements; this means that the other peer supervisors can confirm or contest a given supervisor’s evaluations of his team in an informed fashion. This same mechanism repeats itself up the chain, with higher level managers arguing -- in the presence of their peers -- for the respective strengths and contributions of their units. Ultimately, the total salary increase for the division gets systematically parsed out, top down, from these peer-determined allocation factors.

In academia the interactive, collaborative character of industry is almost precisely inverted. Academia is the antithesis of a well-mixed, fluid organization. Our colleagues are colleagues for life; for example, I have served under the same Dean for nearly 10 years and with the same handful of departmental faculty for nearly 20 years. In my core responsibilities of research and teaching I do not interact with faculty outside my College, and I rarely interact with those within my own College to any significant degree. Like me, most faculty labor out-of-view, and largely alone, on their most critical responsibilities which are teaching and research. For example, I know what subjects my colleagues teach (and have received hearsay about their efficacy) but I really don’t know how they prepare for it, nor do I know how well they do it, and I certainly don’t have any ready mechanism of making such a qualitative determination even if I had the time. Research is an even more individuating activity: each faculty addresses quite different problems, using quite different tools and a highly intuitive and interior strategy for carrying out his discoveries. It would require considerable time and effort for me to make an informed judgment as to quality or potential value of another’s research progress (and vis versa).

Advocates of both "merit" and/or "pay for performance" have unwarranted confidence that faculty can be rationally assessed and compared, either by peers or supervisors, in a practical, realizable time frame. The intangibles that make a faculty great -- generosity, energy, attitude, idealism, ability to learn, leadership, intellectual humility -- are notoriously hard to quantify. Research dollars do not measure research; CATE forms do not measure teaching; the merit-application process, in practice, is by-and-large a dissatisfying exercise in competitive self-promotion. Of course, it is possible for academic peers and supervisors to make a serious attempt to assess faculty -- we do in the tenure process -- it is just formidably time-consuming, disruptive, and generates resentments within the organization that can last for years.

In conclusion, it is unlikely that salary-increase procedures, based on perceived comparative merit, could be equitably implemented in a university context due to the limited, genuine, collaborative interaction between faculty in research and teaching. In industry, the several managers who are deeply familiar with an employee’s work can come to a coordinated unbiased view of the employee’s contribution; this situation has no analog in academia. Perhaps an across-the-board cost-of-living increase plus some fixed percent (say, COLA+2%), for all faculty, would be a fair approach (with the reminder distributed as negotiated: merit, PFP, salary compression, whatever). An enterprise the size and sophistication of Temple University would be a mismanaged Temple University should its faculty compensation fail to keep pace with inflation.

In closing I wish to thank each recipient of this letter, personally, for the labor and guidance that you have accorded to Temple University. A continuous and principal blessing of my life is my deep engagement with this singular enterprise and its special mission.

Yours most faithfully,

Vallorie J. Peridier, Ph.D.
Associate Professor Mechanical Engineering,

Graduate Program Director, Mechanical Engineering/Bioengineering

cc: Art Hochner, Ph.D. President, TAUP

Lisa Staiano-Coico, Ph.D. Provost, Temple University

Keya Sadeghipour, Ph.D. Dean, College of Engineering

Mohammad Kiani, Ph.D. Chair, Mechanical Engineering

James Korsh, Ph.D. Professor, Computer and Information Science